The San Antonian Behind New York City's Most Innovative Park | Texas Public Radio

The San Antonian Behind New York City's Most Innovative Park

Aug 18, 2014

He’s a San Antonian who is responsible for one of the most fascinating aspects of a fascinating place, and it’s probably one you’ve never heard of.  I had only recently heard of it, and decided to check it out. I took a short vacation recently to New York City and my wife and I went to the High Line, a park there unlike any other. Here’s the story of how that park came about.

Robert Hammond was born and raised in San Antonio, and went to Alamo Heights High School. He moved to New York after college, but still visits San Antonio.

“When I say I’m going to Texas I say I’m going home, and when I go back to New York, I also say I’m going home,” said Hammond.

Back in 1999, in his other home of New York City, there was a defunct, elevated train track that crossed through the Manhattan neighborhood called Chelsea. The track ran 30 ft. above street level for a mile and a half stretch. By 1999 it had long since stopped running. And to Hammond, its future looked dim.

“In the summer I read an article that they were going to tear it down. And so I just assumed that someone was going to be working to preserve it,” he said.

Turns out, no one was and Mayor Giuliani signed its demolition order. To find out what he could do to prevent that, Hammond went to a public meeting where its demolition was on the agenda.

“(I) sat next to another guy named Joshua David and we realized that we were the only two people that were interested; everyone else just wanted to tear it down,” Hammond said.

Hammond and David had seen the rail from street level only, but they convinced the company who owned the tracks to let them up top to look at them. What they found amazed them. Nature was reclaiming the tracks.

“My mother always sort of taught me to look for the beautiful in unexpected places and my dad was president of the Botanical Garden and really interested in architecture, parks and preservations,” he said.

Apparently they had raised exactly the right person for the job ahead: turning a rusty old train track into the High Line, a park in the sky. In a sense, it already had a good start. Nature had already "planted" grasses, flowers and trees on the elevated railway.

“You had wildflower field running a mile and a half of Manhattan running right through the city,” said Hammond.

So the two men's dream turned from just saving the track as a relic, to actually turning it into a public park.

“Most people thought it was a pretty crazy idea," Hammond said. "We realized it was just up to us.”

So they formed a friends organization, raised money, and began having some good initial successes.

"We couldn’t do it on our own, even if we wanted to,” he said.

I noted that he'd hit kind of a speed bump on September 11, 2001.

“Yeah, yeah I just thought it was over when that happened, because who was going to care about this project?” said Hammond.

It turned out the terror attack crippled the economy for years, but not the city’s optimism, said Hammond.

“Interestingly, it actually really helped the project in a way because people really wanted to help the city, they wanted to give back, they wanted to be part of re-building New York," he said. "But there wasn’t too much they could do downtown, but here was this project that was positive and full of hope. And people actually got more behind the project after 9-11.”

Tomorrow, rest of the story about the High Line.  

“At what point did you go, 'Wow! We’re going to pull this off?' " I asked.

“I don’t think it was until we opened in 2009, ten years later!” he said.

A video on the High Line: